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Museums on the Mall

 
Air and Space Museum:
8 Great Stops in 2 Hours or Less

By Tim Zimmerman
Special to washingtonpost.com

 
7th St. and
Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20560
202-357-2700
Daily
10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.


    Photo
    Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in the exhibit "The Space Race." (By Eric Long/Courtesy of NASM)
The National Air and Space Museum is the busiest museum in the world (about 8 million visitors a year) for two good reasons: People think airplanes and spacecraft are really cool and the National Air and Space museum rewards this fascination spectacularly. When it opened in 1976, a radio signal from a Viking lander circling Mars triggered the scissors that cut the ribbon.

The museum layout is simple. Three enormous halls -- "Milestones of Flight," "Air Transportation" and the "Space Race" -- are devoted to the most important aircraft and space vehicles in the museum's outstanding collection. Linking them together on two floors are a series of smaller galleries devoted to specific topics, such as "Jet Aviation" or the "Golden Age of Flight."

Photo    
The Spirit of St. Louis.
(Courtesy of NASM)
   
2
By far the best way to absorb almost one hundred years of fast-moving aviation history is to start with about an hour in the open halls. "We've got these historical icons," says Tom Dietz, a specialist in the museum's aeronautics division. "It would be pretty silly to come to the Air and Space Museum and not see things like the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis, or some of the spacecraft."

Before doing so, however, there is a basic strategic decision to be made: tour or audio? Tours start at the Information Desk inside the main entrance at least twice a day and are conducted by extremely knowledgeable guides. They take about an hour-and-a-half and cover most of the museum's greatest hits. If you prefer autonomy, you can save time by skipping the tour stops which don't grab you; the museum has a very good "Interactive Audio Tour" ($4.95; less for extra headphones). It allows you to stop at any exhibit, punch in a number code, and listen to a brief taped discussion of the exhibit and related sub-topics (such as an important design innovation on "Spirit of St. Louis").

   
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